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Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D.

Osmotic Pressure and Tonicity

By November 17, 2013

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Tonicity and Red Blood Cells (LadyofHats)Osmotic pressure and tonicity often are confusing to people. Osmotic pressure is the pressure of a solution against a semipermeable membrane to prevent water from flowing inward across the membrane. Tonicity is the measure of this pressure. If the concentration of solutes on both sides of the membrane is equal, then there is no tendency for water to move across the membrane and no osmotic pressure. The solutions are isotonic with respect to each other. Usually there is a higher concentration of solutes on one side of the membrane than the other. If you're unclear about osmotic pressure and tonicity it might because you're confused about how the difference between diffusion and osmosis.

Diffusion Versus Osmosis

Diffusion is the movement of particles from an region of higher concentration to one of lower concentration. For example, if you add sugar to water, the sugar will diffuse throughout the water until the concentration of sugar in the water is constant throughout the solution.

During osmosis, as with diffusion, there is a tendency of particles to seek the same concentration throughout the solution. However, the particles may be too large to cross a semipermeable membrane separating regions of solution, so water moves across the membrane. If you have a sugar solution on one side of a semipermeable membrane and pure water on the other side of the membrane, there will always be pressure on the water side of the membrane to try to dilute the sugar solution. Does this mean all of the water will flow into the sugar solution? Probably not, because the fluid may be exerting pressure on the membrane, equalizing the pressure.

As an example, if you put a cell in fresh water, the water will flow into the cell, causing it to swell. Will all of the water flow into the cell? No. Either the cell will rupture or else it will swell to a point where the pressure exerted on the membrane exceeds the pressure of the water trying to enter the cell.

Of course, small ions and molecules may be able to cross a semipermeable membrane, so solutes such as small ions (Na+, Cl-) behave much like they would if simple diffusion were occurring.

Hypertonicity, Isotonicity and Hypotonicity

The tonicity of solutions with respect to each other may be expressed as hypertonic, isotonic or hypotonic. The effect of different external solute concentrations on red blood cells serves as a good example for hypertonic, isotonic and hypotonic solution.

Hypertonic Solution or Hypertonicicty
When the osmotic pressure of the solution outside the blood cells in higher than the osmotic pressure inside the red blood cells, the solution is hypertonic. The water inside the blood cells exits the cells in an attempt to equalize the osmotic pressure, causing the cells to shrink or crenate.

Isotonic Solution or Isotonicity
When the osmotic pressure outside the red blood cells is the same as the pressure inside the cells, the solution is isotonic with respect to the cytoplasm. This is the usual condition of red blood cells in plasma.

Hypotonic Solution or Hypotonicity
When the solution outside of the red blood cells has a lower osmotic pressure than the cytoplasm of the red blood cells, the solution is hypotonic with respect to the cells. The cells take in water in an attempt to equalize the osmotic pressure, causing them to swell and potentially burst.

Osmolarity & Osmolality | Osmotic Pressure & Blood Cells


November 22, 2011 at 4:07 pm
(1) Anynonmous says:

Thanks, helped alot!

February 10, 2012 at 8:25 pm
(2) Catherine Hageny says:

Thanks soooo much! Great examples. Was a life safer! Keep up the good work

March 2, 2012 at 5:27 am
(3) Stephanie says:

Thank you very much! This was very helpful and easy to understand.

April 3, 2012 at 4:52 pm
(4) Malaika says:

Thank you – very clear now ;-)

May 3, 2012 at 8:44 am
(5) Gogo says:

thank you …. didn’t understand any thing

November 4, 2012 at 9:23 pm
(6) priyadarshini says:

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February 15, 2013 at 7:41 am
(7) Johnny says:

Superb! I love the explanation.

February 21, 2013 at 3:00 am
(8) elsie says:

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November 6, 2013 at 2:16 pm
(9) nobody says:

Sort of help in a way so lost before.

November 13, 2013 at 11:45 am
(10) shyma says:

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November 30, 2013 at 6:13 am
(11) iqra saleem says:

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February 21, 2014 at 1:09 pm
(12) ida says:

i,m student of anasthesiolog, your explanation was so great ,in understanding the issue,

March 6, 2014 at 3:16 am
(13) asd says:

“Osmotic pressure is the pressure of a solution against a semipermeable membrane to prevent water from flowing inward across the membrane. Tonicity is the measure of this pressure.”

Poor definitions.

March 7, 2014 at 8:10 pm
(14) Admat Glover says:

Thanks…easy to understand

March 17, 2014 at 1:09 pm
(15) rachael says:

very helpful.thnx a lot

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